Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai

1986. Kalimpong, West Bengal. In the foothills of the Himalayas, rich and poor, Nepali and Bengali, live side by side.

History is happening.

Kiran Desai's The Inheritance of Loss is a book about politics.

It's not the he-said-she-said sort of small-scale politics where you're flailing at the other side, and things are deliberately misunderstood so as to create an emotion-driven argument that implies the world must be in much better shape than anyone thought, if we have the luxury of taking all our outrage and reducing it to the language and logic of a sports rivalry.

No, this is a book about BIG POLITICS. The aftermath of colonialism, to be exact. The novel is populated with upper-class Indians enjoying a rustic life in Kalimpong. There are sisters Lola and Noni, who are still eating English food and reading English books. There is an elderly judge, who back in pre-Independence days, went off to England for schooling and witnessed racial discrimination, but upon his return to India he tried to be as English as he possibly could and despised his wife for being traditionally Indian. There is his orphaned granddaughter who recently arrived at his estate from the convent where she was educated; she's only dimly aware that others would see her as living a life of privilege.

These characters start out blissfully unaware that historic happenings are about to flare up and surround them.

Kalimpong is not a fictional town like Kaikurussi or Malgudi. It's a real place, the novel's main narrative is set in the mid-1980s, and the real-life movement by ethnic Nepalis to create their own state is just getting underway.

Meanwhile, the judge employs a cook and the cook has a son, Biju, who found his way to New York where he is working his way illegally through a series of menial jobs. I'm tempted to say the portrayal of Americans and other Westerners in Desai's book is not too flattering. But that would be unfair. The truth is that nobody gets a flattering portrayal. Everybody comes across as at least faintly ridiculous. There's an admirable even-handedness here.

And the ending, while not really a happy one, isn't the soul-crushing Rohinton Mistry ending I was expecting, either.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The 2011 Lyttle Lytton

In the Lyttle Lytton Contest, entrants are challenged to come up with deliberately bad beginnings to novels. The 2011 winners are out!

The Lyttle Lytton differs from the rather more famous Bulwer-Lytton Contest in that the Lyttle Lytton stresses brevity. How much subtle badness can you pack into a short space? (For the 2012 contest, the limit is 200 characters.)

The 2011 winners range from typically bad sentences:

Cowboy Bret said to Dave (another cowboy), “Now let’s rustle up these cattles.”

To subtle oddness:

He, from a physical stature, was short.

And include a well-done takedown of an entire style of genre writing:

I passed the fledgling plastic to the checkout chick. “Cred?” she said.

And one that I cannot read out loud without laughing:

Princess Amabel brushed her silky golden hair and tried not to think about my breasts.

All in all, a highly successful year.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Scoop-Wallah: Life on a Delhi Daily by Justine Hardy

In which we read English journalist Justine Hardy's account of her time working as a staff reporter for the Indian Express. She mixes the standard foreigner-eye-view of life in a big, dusty Indian city with accounts of editors who want her to do fluffy feature stories rather than the hard news she prefers, and upper-class Indians who wonder why she is even doing a job that they feel an Indian journalist could do just as well.

Overall I enjoyed Scoop-Wallah quite a bit for its descriptions of 1990s-era upper-crust Delhi society, and for the stories of the northern half of India -- the geographical half I have yet to visit. The writing was a bit odd for a memoir. The first section, dealing with her move to Delhi, reads like any other obligatory "Westerner arrives in strange new country of India" chapter. But later in the book it's made clear in asides and background information that she hadn't been a complete India newbie at the time; in fact she'd already had substantial experience in the country. Shouldn't there have been a few sentences inserted in the first chapter to make this clear?

That said, Hardy does a decent job balancing High Society (she likes polo, she's got friends in high places, and the Dalai Lama even makes an appearance) and The Common People (particularly in the chapter dealing with Gautam Vohra and his organic farm project). I'll probably visit Delhi myself one day, and while it'll undoubtedly be a different city from the Delhi of the 1990s that Hardy writes about, there are, as they say, no full stops in India.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Better Man by Anita Nair

Having just retired from a very modest and unimpressive career, fifty-nine year old Mukundan has returned to Kaikurussi, the village where he grew up under the oppressive thumb of his domineering father, Achuthan. Achuthan, now eighty-nine, is just as much of a bully as ever and lives with his mistress' daughter in a house just across the street from Mukundan's childhood home. Despite the occasional bombast Mukundan is as weak-willed as ever, as he belatedly starts trying to assert himself.

Kaikurussi is a fictional town, but its location is very precisely described: it's in the Malabar area of Kerala, in the vicinity of such cities as Kannur and Kozhikode. Jenna and I have been to that area of India, so I was able to feel a bit of pleasure as Nair's characters mentioned places that I had a modicum of familiarity with.

There are points in Anita Nair's episodic novel The Better Man where Mukundan's story almost seems like a loose framing device for the individual stories of Kaikurussi's people. R. K. Narayan is an obvious influence. Nair shows much more willingness than Narayan to delve into the dark side of small-town Indian society, though, as both small-time corruption and harassment of untouchables play a large part in the story.

Mukundan's story comes back to the forefront in the latter half, as events push the protagonist towards a point where he has to make a decision about what kind of person he is going to be. I'm not sure I liked the ending, which I thought was effective only if you don't think about what happens next.

The Better Man is the first of what'll be four consecutive India-themed books I'm reading. My bookshelves are full of Indian stuff, and I'd like to make my way through it.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Perdido Street Station by China Mieville

Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin is a scientist in the sprawling, immensely squalid city-state of New Crobuzon. One day he is sought out by Yagharek, a member of a race of flying creatures who was forced to sever his own wings as a punishment. Yagharek wants Isaac to restore his ability to fly. Isaac is excited by the intellectual challenge, as well as the formidable amount of money Yagharek seems able to offer him. Some very, very bad things happen as a result.

A decade after publication, China Mieville's Perdido Street Station is considered a modern-day classic. It's Mieville's most popular work and the first of his novel set in the epic world of Bas-Lag. Mieville created Bas-Lag as a reaction against the Tolkein-derived worlds you see all over the fantasy genre. In fact, it seems very limiting to call the Bas-Lag novels fantasy at all; what Mieville appears to have done is draw a Venn diagram with circles representing science fiction, fantasy, and horror, and then stake out his territory where the three overlap.

Perdido Street Station, and the other novels set in the Bas-Lag universe, are fantasy in the sense that they take place in a world where magic exists, although the five-letter "M" word itself is hardly anywhere to be found. Wizards exist, but they are called thaumaturgists. The books feel science-fictional. The forces that thaumaturgists draw on are no more magical to them than gravity is to us. Isaac and his counterparts are scientists, and if their science bears little resemblance to our understanding of the term, that's only because their universe obeys different laws than ours. The Crisis Engine may not run on any principles Newton or Einstein would have recognized, but the academics of Bas-Lag have a good understanding of the theoretical underpinnings, and that's good enough for them.

I said that Perdido Street Station occupies the part of the diagram where three genres overlap. The Bas-Lag books are tales of horror. I would never want to live anywhere in Bas-Lag. Not even if I got to occupy a relatively privileged stratum of society. New Crobuzon is an awful, horrible place, which Mieville lovingly describes every bit of.

A lot of people are turned off by Mieville's writing. A few weeks ago, John Scalzi's Old Man's War got voted the best SFF novel of the decade on, and Scalzi very graciously said that while he appreciated the honor, if it were up to him to choose, he would pick Perdido Street Station instead. Comments to his post included a variety of opinions on Mieville's writing style. While several comments were from fans of the novel, there were also posts like:

I am one of the minority who didn’t like “Perdido Street Station” much at all. I can agree that It was an extraordinary book to read and parts of it will stick in my brain but if we liken it to food then it was food that had so many weird flavours it just tasted badly on my tongue. This was a book that gave me the same sensation that movie District 9 did, as though I had crawled into a vat of something oily, full of creepy-crawlies and twisted.


I got about haflway through Perdido Street Station before throwing in the towel. I estimate he spends about a third of every chapter describing how dirty the city is and the remaining two thirds talking about characters about whom I just could not bring myself to care.

And there are "I liked it, but..." comments:

Perdido is a gorgeous novel, but I can’t bring myself to re-read it because it’s just so depressingly dark. In the same vein, it’s hard for me to recommend, because I really have to know the reader will enjoy something despite/because of the visceral pain.
Those comments are all perfectly fair and accurate. Not everybody likes everything, and that's fine. Many readers are going to be turned off by Mieville's prose: incredibly evocative, but evocative of things that are horrid. And many readers will be turned off by the slowly building realization that there isn't going to be a happy ending.

As for me, I loved it. I loved the density of the world-building and how everything fit together. I loved the Neal Stephenson-esque pacing. I loved the Weaver and the free-verse poetry it spouted. I loved the logic behind the science.

Perdido Street Station was my second Mieville book. Last year I read The Scar, which is also set in Bas-Lag and has a very tenuously connected plot (it's not really a sequel, and you can read one book without spoiling the other). I'll never be able to write like Mieville, and his books take a long time to read. But I love his style.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

A Matter of Taste

Troy Patterson at Slate reviews HBO's Game of Thrones:

You see, Game of Thrones—adapted by David Benioff and Dan Weiss from a series of novels by George R.R. Martin—is quasi-medieval, dragon-ridden fantasy crap. That's not a comment on its quality but a definition of its type. The reviewer happens to have an anti-weakness for that general sensibility and those armor-clad generic trappings. Hey, his loss, he knows, but, for instance, he cannot trust his taste to tell him if the Harry Potter books are written well. An undergraduate attempt to learn to read Middle English led to naps in multiple Chaucer seminars. He recalls the emotional pain he suffered one lunch period back in the Reagan Era—the pain of wasting the time experimenting with icosahedral dice. Once, bowing to peer pressure, he lyingly implied that he thought Peter Jackson's adaptation of Lord of the Rings to be in the same league as Lawrence of Arabia, when the honest answer was, "I don't care." Many, many years ago, before escaping the provinces, he was horribly unchivalrous in canceling a date at the last minute. Word was going around that the lady in question made like a serving wench at many a Renaissance Festival, and he called off the plans for their Olive Garden rendezvous. Sorry.

Now, first of all let me admit I've never read George R. R. Martin, although I figure I will eventually. People whose taste in fiction is similar to mine seem to like him, so it's probably only a matter of time.

Now that that's out of the way: I'm not bashing Troy Patterson for writing this review. He's just a critic supplying an honest review to the publication that asked him to write it. It's okay that he doesn't like the genre. There's lots of stuff in the world that I don't like, too. And never having seen A Game of Thrones, it's entirely possible that it literally consists of nothing but quasi-medieval, dragon-ridden fantasy crap.

But here's a thought experiment: Let's imagine that I really, really dislike Mexican food. I think it tastes like crap. The texture of the food makes me gag. And when I do manage to get mouthfuls of the horrid stuff down without puking it up again immediately, it wreaks havoc on my digestive system. And it leaves me feeling miserable.

And I'm a writer, and one day the magazine that I write for asks me to do a review of the new Mexican place downtown. There's substantial buzz in the local foodie community, and my review is guaranteed to be widely read. So, even though I wouldn't go near the place ordinarily, I resign myself to my fate and head there for dinner one night.

It's horrible. I think it tastes like crap. The texture of the food makes me gag. I manage to get mouthfuls of the horrid stuff down without puking it up again immediately, but it wreaks havoc on my digestive system. I make several painful trips to the bathroom that night. I make all of this very clear in my restaurant review, which the magazine duly publishes in its next issue.

The fact that I don't like Mexican food doesn't make me a bad person. And I explain in my review that it's a cuisine that I don't like, and never have liked.

But why did the magazine choose me to review the place? I knew what I was going to write before I even stepped inside. Why bother going? That's what bugs me about Patterson's review.

I can't even blame Slate. Troy Patterson is a TV critic. A Game of Thrones is a TV show. Therefore, it is his job to review it, even if his distaste for the genre it represents renders him incapable of giving it a review that those of us who don't have an aversion to "quasi-medieval, dragon-ridden fantasy crap" will find useful.

I think the problem here is classifying entertainment critics according to the medium: TV critics, movie critics, book critics, and so on. At first I wondered if maybe publications should classify entertainment critics by genre instead: SFF critics, crime critics, romance critics. But the more I think about that idea, the less I like it. I've got a strong aversion to genre ghettos, and I don't think we should encourage them.

How about this: Rather than employ a movie critic, a TV critic, and so on, publications keep a stable of entertainment critics who don't each limit themselves to a single medium. You don't have one person who reviews only TV shows, another who reviews only novels, and so forth. Instead, you've got a group of decent writers on hand who can review across media and have differing tastes. Something like the TV adaptation of Game of Thrones comes along, and you can assign someone to review it who doesn't feel their skin crawl due to dislike of the genre. Maybe that person knows who George R. R. Martin is. Maybe not. Maybe that person will give Game of Thrones a favorable review. Maybe not. What matters is, Game of Thrones at least has a chance of making a favorable impression on the critic's brain.

And nobody has to sit down for a meal that he knows is going to make him sick. That's just not right.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Nonfiction 10: In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

Ever since I got Instapaper for my iPod Touch, I've been reading more long-form journalism than ever before. One of the classic genres of feature writing is the crime story. A detailed study of a particularly gruesome or memorable crime makes for absolutely gripping reading. The genre can be trashy and exploitive. It's also insanely compelling. How many TV dramas are basically televised fictional versions of the journalistic crime story?

Truman Capote's In Cold Blood is the ur-example of the genre. In November 1959, a family of four in western Kansas was brutally murdered in their home, and the lack of obvious suspects or an apparent motive perplexed local law enforcement for weeks. The perpetrators were identified and caught the following January. They were convicted after a brief trial, and after a five-year appeals process they were hanged.

Capote didn't invent the genre from nothing, but every piece of true crime feature writing since is descended from his book. Of course, Capote wrote a full-length book, rather than the magazine-length article one senses he would have written today. Would In Cold Blood be better if it were a lot shorter? That depends on what you're hoping to get from it. If you're used to reading modern-day feature-length crime journalism, and you're primarily interested in the details of the crime and the hunt for the killers, you're likely to find In Cold Blood to be padded and slightly tedious.

But Capote was able to write a full book where most writers would have stopped after a couple of thousand words because he delves deep into the psyches of the two perpetrators, Perry Smith and Dick Hickock. Capote got to know them both extremely well through visiting them in prison, and he treats us readers to lengthy descriptions of their formative experiences, personalities, and the psychology of their relationship. They, not the victims or the law enforcement officials, are the real stars of the book.

I've never seen the 1967 movie based on the book, but I have seen the 2005 film Capote, for which Philip Seymour Hoffman won an Oscar. Not quite the biopic it was advertised as, Capote is entirely about Capote's experiences writing In Cold Blood. More sardonic filmmakers would have given the movie Capote the same title as the book it's about -- the movie depicts Capote developing a severely coldblooded streak as he balances the close emotional relationship that's developed between him and Perry Smith, with the fact that he's going to have to see Smith and Hickock hang before he can finish his book. Excellent movie -- devastating portrayal of the man.

Capote keeps himself out of his own book, which never ventures into the first person. But it's quite fun to imagine what the juxtaposition must have looked like: these straight-laced, upright Midwestern farmers in 1959, and this man from the extreme opposite end of the American cultural spectrum who has come from New York to document them for posterity.

Friday, April 8, 2011

The Correct Answer and the Right Answer

It's probably because I've been working my way through the practice sets at Khan Academy lately, but today's SMBC made me giggle for a good long time.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama

I was tempted to write this post pretending that the author of this book was still a lawyer and relatively small-time politician in Chicago. That would simplify things. I'll try it for a few paragraphs.

After graduating from Harvard Law, young Chicago-based lawyer Barack Obama wrote his memoir Dreams from My Father. The book is divided into three parts. The first third deals with Obama's childhood in Hawaii and Indonesia, including the only time he meets his own father, Barack Obama Sr.

In the second part, Obama lightly touches on his time living in New York City before delving in detail into the beginnings of his political career in 1980s Chicago. Here we have his community organizer days. Relatively small-scale stuff, but it's more than I've ever done.

In the final third, Obama to Kenya for the first time to connect with his (by now late) father's family. It concludes the memoir's themes of family, identity, and race.

Yes, race is an issue. How can it not be one? American society insists on making it an issue. When it comes to race in America, I can only hope not to sound like an idiot. I grew up in one of the whitest states in the country, and went to college in Washington DC, which is very diverse and also very segregated. I interacted with countless black people and actually knew very, very few. How can I be proud of that? In the years I lived in DC, how often did I venture into the most strongly African-American neighborhoods? Never. (I don't mean neighborhoods like U St. or Shaw, which I often visited. I mean Wards 7 and 8, which weren't even on my radar.)

The middle section of Dreams from My Father, about the local politics and problems of the black community in Chicago, really drove home the realities of urban segregation in the United States. Yes, Obama's experiences date from the 1980s. But Chicago is still highly segregated -- the most racially segregated city in the US.

So there's that. Well-written, thought-provoking. But it's hard to grapple with the book the way I would if Barack Obama had remained a lawyer and constitutional law professor, prominent within his own circles but unknown outside of Illinois. At the same time, I would never have encountered the book if Obama hadn't gone on to much bigger things.

There's a disconnect between my impression of the guy who wrote Dreams from My Father and my impression of the current President of the United States. The author of Dreams from My Father comes across as a real person. I have a hard time perceiving the President that way. The idea of becoming a professional politician, running for President, and then being President is so distasteful to me that I have a hard time relating to or trusting people who would voluntarily debase themselves that way. Here we see a problem with modern democracy.

If you want to be President, you have to be okay with the fact that a huge segment of America will really, truly believe that the most mature and intelligent way to show they care about their country is to compare you to Hitler and tell preposterous lies about you. I couldn't make myself okay with that. I don't know how anyone could.

But Dreams from My Father wasn't written by the President of the United States. It was written by a person with political ambition, but if Obama really expected, back in 1994, to become President one day, he was delusional. I think that makes the book valuable; Obama wasn't censoring himself as much as he would if he wrote the same book 15 years later.

I don't have any desire to read Obama's later book, The Audacity of Hope. I don't know what I would get out of a book written by a successful politician seeking to become a more successful politician. But Dreams from My Father is a different sort of animal.

President Obama didn't write Dreams from My Father. Neither did Senator Obama. Barack Obama did. He's a different person now, shifted into a different sort of existence that I can't sympathize with easily.

Dreams from My Father is a valuable account of one man's view of race in the late 2oth century. It's also a valuable look at a man who would go on to be President. I might need to re-read the book in order to properly integrate those two impressions in my mind.